Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Column, January 29, 2008

THERE’S something decidedly rum going on in the state of Ceredigion.
It appears that if you want a planning application approved, despite the council officers being ranged against you, the best advice is to make sure you speak Welsh.
Now, I’ve come across some pretty arcane planning requirements in my time, having numbed my backside during many a council meeting – drainage, landscaping, noise abatement – the usual stuff, but never the language of the applicant.
Of course, we all know why they’ve done it, it’s to try to protect the local Welsh-speaking community. That’s a laudable aim, but it’s a questionable tactic to adopt in trying to pursue such an aim.
Now the assembly’s inspector, Ian Osborne, has said that granting permission for plans on the grounds the applicant was a Welsh-speaker was discriminatory. Now the council’s senior planning officer has warned councillors that they could lose their planning powers if it continued to make such decisions.
The thing is that planning laws are designed to deal with buildings and the environment. They are complicated, but they are nowhere near a sophisticated enough tool to deal with the fraught issue of the survival of Welsh-speaking communities.
It is madness to think you would get away with granting planning on the grounds of language, when English-speakers might have got shorter shrift from the council.
But more than that, I’m concerned about the image this gives of Wales. Yet again we are open to portrayal as some sort of banana republic because a council has played fast and loose with the law.
And the English will have a field day as they nurse their beer bemoaning the refusal of permission to put a three-storey extension on their tiny Welsh cottage complete with en-suite bathrooms for every bedroom.
“Of course,” the pub bore will declare, “I would have got it through if I could speak more Welsh than yakky-da (I know that’s not how it’s spelt, but it’s how they say it), one law for them, one law for us, they’d probably have burnt it down anyway etc, etc, ad nauseam.”
And the problem is that you can’t really argue with that, even though most of it is complete rubbish. Once you bend the rules, even with the best will in the world, you’ve given your critics ammunition.
All the reasoning about the death of small communities will be lost as they shout back: “Well, what if we did that in England, only allowed planning applications by the English? We’d be strung up, it’s political correctness gone mad I tell you?”
You wouldn’t mind if it was a proper planning scandal a la T Dan Smith and the despoliation of the North East of England, fortunes passed from hand to hand in brown paper envelopes. But no, we can’t even do that, we have to go about it in an algtruistic, albeit misguided manner.
The fundamental problem of course is not whether a handful of people gain a tiny advantage in the planning process because of the language they speak, but why councillors would feel they need to behave in such a way.
It can only be because they are casting about to find some solution to the perpetual problem of why people are leaving Wales. It’s the perennial problem and it’s why the row over the census in Wales and the Welsh tick box was a red herring. We don’t need to know how many people in Wales count themselves as Welsh, we need to know how many of them there are in England and then figure out why they went there.
I know the second homes market gets the blame, but that cannot possibly be the root cause when the whole of the UK has been afflicted by rampant house price rises.
Young people aren’t leaving Wales to get to some mythical Xanadu over the border where a first-time-buyer can get on the property ladder easily. It’s not easy anywhere, but over the border they’ve got a better chance of a better-paid job that gives them a greater chance of making that start.
Property is more expensive in England, not less so, so it cannot be house prices alone that are causing the Welsh diaspora we are seeing.
The planners of Ceredigion may have had their hearts in the right place, but they let them rule their heads in these few cases. It would be shame for them to lose their planning powers over such an issue, because they obviously care about the communities that have elected them and that is to their credit.
It’s all very well the Assembly government telling them they are out of order though, unless they come up with a lasting solution then the overwhelming pressure on local authorities will be to do something because the Assembly government is doing nothing.

SO farewell then Peter Hain.
Having previously backed Rod Richards in his travails it would seem that a vote of confidence from this column is akin to a football club chairman backing a losing manager – ie the kiss of death.
And on that basis I would like to give my firm support to Gordon Brown, he’s doing a fine job, and anyone who says the economy is down the pan and we’re mired in two wars we can’t win is a moaning minny.
That should do the trick.

IT’S that time again.
When I suddenly develop a passion for DIY jobs around the house.
Mrs B, who normally has to fulfil the role of foreman, finds it strange that all of a sudden I’m in my decorating gear and up the ladder every Saturday or Sunday.
She hasn’t quite made the connection between all of my jobs taking about 80 minutes or so, with a brief break for a cuppa halfway through, and all jobs, crucially, to be carried out within sight of a TV screen.
It’s Six Nations time again.

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